A familiar theme emerged when we talked to eight of the people at the reins of the premier family-owned-and-run outdoor gear companies in America. "It all began as a hobby," says Hal Stephens, speaking of his father’s interest in scuba diving, the ignition for a business that early on sold a single diving flashlight – and over 35 years became now a multi-million dollar tactical lighting company the younger Stephens now runs. "It wasn't overnight, of course. there were quite a few hard knocks on the way."
In fact, each of these companies, from a bootmaker whose wares last for decades, to a paddle-crafter working in high-tech carbon fiber, in some part spun out of a free-time pursuit. These families aren’t making widgets to fill some blank space in the product universe; they’re making the gear they’d want to use go to out and explore the world in the open air on Saturday and Sunday. We talked to each of these leaders about their company’s heritage, and one product which evinces it best.
Scott Newell: Bluewater Ropes
Scott Newell's family has been involved in textile manufacturing in Georgia since 1903, but its current incarnation, making climbing ropes, dates from his father Dick's interest in spelunking during the late 1960s. He found there were no decent ropes for the pits, so began to make one himself. Accomplished rock climbers Wayne Goss and Jeff Lowe heard about the operation, and convinced Dick to start making high-elongation rope for rock climbing, since there were no American companies producing it, which made the ropes prohibitively expensive. As the company grew, Dick's son Scott watched; now he runs the show. "I grew up with a rope braiding machine in the basement, so I never really got away from the business," says Scott. "It's not about the dollars – keeping this place going is more of a personal commitment. I still enjoy manufacturing and love the freedom of making interesting stuff."